Today, England enters a new phase in its fight against Covid-19. It is now illegal to meet inside or outside in groups of more than 6 people. This new rule, and the way it is being enforced, reveals two significant changes: one concerning the Prime Minister, the other about the public, and its attitude towards the virus.
First, the implementation of the ‘rule of the six’ reveals the dramatic change Boris Johnson has undergone as a politician. Unlike Thatcher or Attlee, Johnson has always been someone whose ideology was hard to define. Indeed his critics claim he doesn’t have one and merely follows the whims of opportunity. It is more complex than that though.
To work out what ‘Johnsonism’ is, it’s perhaps best looking through the lens in which the majority of the public know the man. Rather than adopting the traditional approach of analysing his policies, one should examine his character. It is the character of Boris Johnson, not his thoughts, which permeated public discourse – in the form of an Outnumbered episode – as early as 2011.
Thus what does his character reveal about ‘Johnsonism’?
Through his bombastic style, Boris Johnson has always strived to position himself as something of an outsider, despite his Eton College background. From cycling around London to zip-wiring across the Olympic Park, this was a Mayor who was different from other politicians. He was an entertainer, a comedian. He made millions laugh on Have I Got News For You.
Revealingly, the majority of the jokes he delivered, were against either himself or other politicians. As a character, he was someone who mocked the governing classes of Britain and therefore positioned himself as someone distinct from them. He took great joy in complaining against officialdom and pertinently expert’s health advice: George Osborne’s proposed tax on milkshakes was the ‘continuing creep of the nanny state’, the ban on swimming in the River Thames was ‘namby-pamby’.
Johnson was an ‘outsider’ before he was an outright Eurosceptic. In 2016, he didn’t adopt an opportunistic stance. Rather, Brexit was a cause which at that time, fitted his character – the character the public knew incredibly well – as an outsider. In the sense ‘outsider’ means one who positions himself against the rules of officialdom and the rather dull consensus of the British political class. It can be argued that Brexit was as much a revolt against national officialdom and consensus than it was against the EU. It followed a period when the Conservative Party, under Cameron, and the Labour Party, under Blair, moved closer together in political position. In the Referendum, Johnson took much joy in mocking EU regulations on bendy bananas and fish quotas. This was Johnson – as a character – fitting perfectly with Brexit – as a policy.
Today, however, Boris Johnson is faced with a challenge that doesn’t fit this character. Faced with leading the country through a global pandemic, it is not possible for him as Prime Minister to mock the official advice being given by scientists and government officials, in the way some of the public is. Not those members of the public pathetically arguing the virus doesn’t exist, but rather those who point out the absurdity and contradictions that can be found in a number of the rules.
Perhaps it was inevitable, that the demands of the job would soon catch up with his self-styled character. After all, Prime Ministers cannot mock the rules they implement and represent. I am, however, unsure of the inevitability of this because besides Covid-19, Number 10 is mounting one of the biggest attacks on officialdom in Whitehall history, and numerous other radical shake-ups: planning system, local government, the courts, etc.
Nevertheless, the virus has meant Johnson can no longer be the character that attracted so much of the public to him before they knew anything about his policies. Indeed, his characterisation laid the foundations for many of the policies he went on to advocate. Personality, and emotional passions found in of one’s character, are such an important determinant in people’s political thinking, and regularly gets lost in the search for more complex and rational explanations.
Accepting the significance of character, I suspect that if such regulations as the rule of six continue to be implemented, then Johnson may lose one of his greatest selling points. In the face of a public ready to poke frustrated fun at the contradictions of Government regulations, what Johnson as a character represented, will be undermined.
The fact that the Government believes the police are needed to ensure adherence to this rule, reveals an acceptance of how the public mood has significantly changed since the initial lockdown. From speaking to various people this weekend, that assumption is correct.
- The national consensus and sense of unity reflected in Thursday’s Clap for Carers came in the darkest months of the crisis. It became prominent once the danger had hit, was visible and sadly being felt. This mood was in response to the event and helped successfully create extraordinary levels of compliance with the rules being advocated. It is for this reason, that I believe lockdown could not have been implemented any sooner than perhaps one week before it was – March 23rd. Such draconian measures needed a public ready to accept them. In this case, through fear and a sense of national altruism. For those wanting stricter measures today, as cases continue to rise, worryingly the necessary national feeling has not yet been created.
2. Division and blame are starting to mount. Speaking to NHS Volunteers over the weekend, they recounted several heart-breaking phone calls they had last week from the elderly and shielding members of the public. One woman on Wednesday was scared another lockdown was about to be announced. An elderly man called simply to vent his anger, at people he could see breaking the rules, and whom he now blamed for forcing him to isolate again after six long and difficult months of shielding.
3. In the space of six months, Covid-19 has changed from something no one knew anything about, to a topic dominant in our everyday lives, and crucially something everyone in the public can offer an opinion on. In many ways, the genie is out of the battle, in a similar way to that which happened to Brexit. It is remarkable, how many of us can now debate the ‘Swedish Model’, herd immunity, the science behind the virus. Whilst this is expected, it is remarkable, the certainty people speak of d complex scientific studies. At the time George Floyd was murdered, commentators speculated that it may have not got as much attention if we were all not locked down and thus on social media and watching the television more. I suspect the same has happened concerning Covid-19. Six months of being stuck inside has meant six months of overwhelming consumption of fact, opinion, and news. This is reflected in the confidence, many now deem their own risk is, to the virus. In March the Government did not have to counter accusations that the virus affects people more of a certain age or weight. Young people going back to university, after losing all semblance of the joys of youth, will be difficult for the Government to persuade. In March, when leaving campuses across the country – no one could have turned around and explained, with much confidence, they are affected less because of their age.
The Prime Minister has gone in one direction. I will leave it up to you, to decide whether because of circumstance or the inevitability of no longer being a campaigner shouting from the sidelines. But I fear the public is beginning to tug in another.
The ‘rule of six is likely’ to be the first in a series of more restrictive measures on public life. I always believed that a second wave would never be anywhere near as bad as the first: our knowledge and tools to be used against the virus – increased testing, drugs like Dexamethasone, and widespread use of hand sanitiser and masks – are far stronger this time. The fear, however, is that public fatigue is setting in. Frustration is growing, and the public is moving from national unity to tiresome anger.
Such a change happens in all wars and crises. The Government has accepted it and responded. As reflected in the use of hard legislative power behind today’s new rule of six. I ask how, in a few months, we will look back on the unity and compliance of those initial lockdown months. The fate of the UK’s pandemic, will be in part, determined by that question.
For more on Covid-19 see The Inside Story: How Three Months Transformed The Modern World And Left The UK In Lockdown.